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Chitpur Local: Inside a lost neighbourhood

One of Kolkata's oldest roads, Chitpur, has been transformed into a cultural cocoon by an arts initiative, bridging the street's local heritage with contemporary art

A store that stocks metal utensils in Jatra Para. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
A store that stocks metal utensils in Jatra Para. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

On a quiet Saturday evening in August, with a hint of grey in the sky, 55-year-old Sunit Chatterjee participated in the setting up of a unique show. The courtyard of Paul Bari, a majestic house in Beniatola Lane, Chitpur, Kolkata, had been transformed into an exhibition space. Large matrimonial portraits of women were being installed as a backdrop—many of these had come from Chatterjee’s own studio, C. Bros photo studio, one of the oldest in Kolkata, founded in 1916. For one year, he had been working closely with Srota Dutta, a writer and an arts researcher, on a collaborative project that uses the format of matrimonial portraits (shot expressly to be sent to prospective grooms’ families) to create a dialogue about women’s identities and the evolving understanding of beauty.

It was apt that the exhibition was taking place in this space, home to the descendants of B.K. Paul, founder of the famous B.K. Paul & Co., which used to provide chemicals to photo studios in the area to process photographs. It was also the first time an arts initiative was exploring the neighbourhood’s tryst with photography.

Community projects such as this are deepening the engagement between residents of Chitpur and the arts. This is the outcome of Chitpur Local, an initiative by the not-for-profit trust, Hamdasti Collective, which uses art and design to create public platforms for dialogue, interaction, civic participation and social engagement. “It was in November 2013 that Hamdasti was looking to support artists in shared community spaces," says Sumona Chakravarty, who leads Chitpur Local.

Chitpur Road—one of Kolkata’s oldest roads—not only presented a vibrant diversity of urban living, with palatial houses coexisting with bastis, it had a rich cultural history as well. One of the neighbourhoods, Jatra Para, was a hub of traditions, such as jatra (a folk theatre form), printmaking, publishing, bamboo crafts and photography. The area is also home to The Oriental Seminary, one of the oldest schools in Kolkata, where several artists and public figures, including Rabindranath Tagore, studied. Chitpur abounded in shared spaces—courtyards, bookshops, public street corner rowaks (platforms outside the perimeters of houses, where people would gather for card games and discussions in the evening)—which had served as a fulcrum for cultural engagement, especially in the 19th century, coinciding with the Bengal renaissance.

A clutch of bamboo artisans sit near the 125-year-old Minerva Theatre on Beadon Street.

Describing the effort of the collective of artists, local students, teachers and shop- owners to reactivate these spaces, Chakravarty says: “The idea was to create a bridge between the past and the present through art, and also to address contemporary issues." It took time and patience to earn the trust of the community. Once they did, the locals and the artists started mapping the area and developed three site-specific projects—a pop-up museum in the courtyard of the De family’s residence, where the fifth generation now lives; a card game based on the narratives of the community, to be played at street corners; and story boxes, based on the archives of the historic Diamond Library, a 139-year-old bookshop and publishing house. Residents joined in as co-artists, producers, advisers and storytellers.

These projects were showcased at the first edition of the Chitpur Local festival in March 2015. Created by local craftspersons, a new line of books, bags, postcards and memorabilia was retailed across the city under the Chitpur Local brand.

Chitpur Road—one of Kolkata’s oldest roads—not only presented a vibrant diversity of urban living, with palatial houses coexisting with ‘bastis’, it had a rich cultural history as well-

The festival allowed the team to reach out to a wider audience and imagine new possibilities of cultural engagement. Eight artists began to work with different segments of the community to understand their issues and find common ground. For instance, a curator, Ruchira Das, started projects with students and teachers of the Sree Bidya Niketan Girls High School, to create conversations between different generations through art-making. “Students had little knowledge about their locality or of the lives of their grandparents. Through interventions, Ruchira has created a dialogue between the children and the neighbourhood," says Nandini Chakraborty, headmistress of the school.

Last year, for instance, Das invited the schoolchildren and their teachers to The Chaitanya Library on Beadon Street in Sovabazar. She placed three sheets of paper on the table, with “neighbourhood" written on one, “amar golpo (my story)" on the second one and “thakuma’r golpo, dadu’r golpo and didima’r golpo (grandparents’ stories)", on the third. Each student had to respond to the title, thereby creating a conversation with familial histories. They also went on a heritage trail, visited Jorasanko Thakur Bari (the Tagore family home), and organized an exhibition of objects collected on the trail.

Another artist, Anuradha Pathak, started collaborating with the Rai and Bagla families to explore the possibilities of reimagining family courtyards, and examining the diverse, contradicting perspectives that shape narratives about their homes and histories. While the Rais are Bengali entrepreneurs, the Baglas are Marwari businessmen, and their social fabric is reflected in the structure of the house and the courtyard. Pathak also worked with the Dawn family, which agreed to let the collective use the courtyard of their house, built between 1900-10, as a public cultural space during the festival. These micro projects came together in the second edition of the Chitpur Local Art Festival, titled Tales Of Chitpur, in February—it was supported by the state department of tourism and the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA).

“This is a very unique community project. We jokingly call most of the community initiatives which come to us as “parachuting projects"—artists parachute into a neighbourhood for a couple of days, work there and parachute out. It’s really disrespectful to the community. But Chitpur Local hasn’t done that," says Arundhati Ghosh, IFA executive director.

Meanwhile, the collective is using learnings from the festival’s second edition to develop long-term projects.

Chatterjee, for one, is hoping to start a travelling exhibition of old photography technology. “I have cameras, which are 70- to 80-years-old, including pinhole ones. There is one from 1890, and a Hasselblad as well. I have glass-plate negatives and old enlargers. I would like to expose people to the evolution in photography through this mobile exhibition," he says.

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